A simple way to get more of what you want in important conversations

By February 5, 2016 9 Comments

Good morning!

I’m writing from New York City today – I’m here with my family for a couple of weeks, in conjunction with the paperback release of Playing Big. I am enraptured by this city as always.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend. She was recounting the latest chapter in her extended family’s ongoing drama (think: sibling rivalries, slammed doors at holiday gatherings, and so on).

When she finished relaying the recent events, I started to give her my opinion on one aspect of the situation.

“You know, hon?” she said, “I think I just want to talk through what happened – I don’t have space to think about what to do about it yet.”

“Got it,” I said.

I felt a little embarrassed, for a moment, that I’d thrown an unwanted opinion at her. But mostly, I felt grateful 1) that she knew what she wanted from our conversation and 2) that she had the courage to tell me.

What was happening in that moment was a short meta-conversation .

A meta-conversation is a discussion about the kind of conversation you want to have (and the kind you don’t want to have). It’s a way of setting parameters and intentions for the conversation. Most of us never get the memo on meta-conversations which is, namely: have them!!

In last week’s post, we explored six different kind of conversation you might want to have, and talked about why it can be helpful to clarify what kind of conversation you are having. A meta-conversation is how you do that.

Like my friend did, in a meta-conversation, you can share with someone what kind of support you’d like, or what kind you wouldn’t like.

You might say, “I’d love for you to help me sort through what I’m really thinking about this. I’m just not clear on what I really think and feel about it.”

Or “I’m not sure what happened in this situation, and I’d love an outside perspective. Can you give me your sense of what’s going on here?”

Are you noticing there’s an interesting step that has to come first, before you say that.

You have to know what kind of support you want! A lot of us have no practice at discerning this. But it’s pretty simple to get going with. You simply pause, turn your attention inward for a moment, and ask yourself “What kind of support do I want here? What do I need for my next step in processing this?”

And then you ask for that kind of conversation.

Of course, not every conversation needs a meta-conversation. And of course, sometimes we get a different kind of support from someone than we wanted and it’s super helpful, but far more often, we each do have some wise sense of what we need, emotionally, around what we’re sharing about. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with all the other kinds of support another person could give us, it’s just that those other kinds don’t necessarily soothe what needs to be soothed in us, or supply what is lacking.

On the other side of things, when a friend comes to you sharing a difficult situation in her life, you can always initiate the meta-conversation. Ask her, “What kind of support do you want from me in this conversation – just listening, or my advice, or something else?” Then you can show up with the kind of support she’s most craving.

Did you have a meta-conversation recently? How did it go? If not, in what situations can you start to use them?

Love to you,


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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • madge says:

    Ah this has a name! Meta-conversation! I have them a lot at work especially — I figure, if I’m calling someone I need to be able to ask them specifically for what I need.

    I really like the idea of using them more in interpersonal relationships, too. As you point out, the most important step is to first figure out what the heck you want!

  • Margaret says:

    Thanks for this. I notice, too, how when I ask for sharing back to me …. if I have a situation to speak of …. I may not want advice at all. That’s not the only way a friend can speak. Maybe their own experience is relevant. Maybe we need to speak of family dynamics or family history. Maybe what we need in a family is an exploration of old patterns of behavior, minus the problem-solving .. !

  • Carmen says:

    This is great. As I get older I’ve been learning that just listening is usually the prime thing that people want from a friend. Being able to express your thoughts uninterrupted in a safe space is great gift. Sometimes we’re not ready for a proclamation made on a situation, or someone’s advice on what we should do. It can feel very aggressive even though the person is just trying to help. These meta conversations sound very respectful of the time and energy both people in the conversations are giving.

  • Christine says:

    Oh if I had known about this years ago, the grief it would have saved between myself and my husband. Seems I’m almost always giving him information or an answer he didn’t want. Conversely, when I speak to him, he needs to ‘fix it’ whether I asked for or need it ‘fixed’ in the first place. Now, to practice! 27 years later, let’s see if old dog really do learn new tricks! Thanks.

  • Thank you Tara, for sharing your own experience on the important topic.

    I benefit from regular reminders that I don’t need to jump in and first deconstruct and then fix a friend’s problems (the thing that men are so often accused of doing, rather than listening. But plenty of women, like myself, are also prone to ‘rescuing’ – maladaptively deriving self-worth from ‘helping’ others)

    I would just add a caveat that sometimes, even when a friend just wants you to listen, sometimes he or she is actually stuck – and just listening is enabling them to staying stuck and not move forward.

    Clues that your friend is stuck, rather than truly just needs an empathic ear, is that they are repeatedly cycling through the same material. You’ve heard it all several times before. They haven’t shifted their position, nor are they engaging in active problem solving.

    As they are often deriving some sort of benefit from staying stuck (usually a form of ‘other-sabotage’ – they can blame others for their failures rather than themselves) they can also be quite resistant to problem-solving.

    Typically they will offer no solutions themselves to their problems, and will respond with “Yes, but…” to any solutions you propose.

    As well as repetition, your friend’s ‘stuck’ version of events is likely to be characterized by anger, and how they has been wronged by others – they blame others for everything and there is an absence of personal responsibility.

    In these situations of ‘stuck-ness’ a good friend or counselor might listen for a bit, but then gently challenge the person on this.

    The more gently you can challenge them the less likely they are to get defensive. And the less defensive they are the more likely they are to be able hear your caring message.

    I need to remind myself of this regularly, but I’ve learned the hard way that gentle challenges are much more effective challenges.

    Challenging a friend gently is not a guarantee that it will go well, but it does dramatically increase the chances that it will.

    Furthermore, those of us prone to rescuing can often fall into a co-dependent relationship with a stuck needy friend, and even partner.

    Our need to be needed can make us reluctant to challenge our friend on their stuck-ness (although it can also be due to a lack of assertiveness skills), as we fear upsetting and losing that person.

    But it is what a caring friend would do.
    Personally I’ve become much better at this. I felt honored when one of my BFF’s said that one of the things she loved about me was that I told her things that she didn’t like hearing(!)

    A final note of caution – no matter how gentle your challenge, people high in narcissism can respond very badly to any real or imagined criticism. As I found out when I challenged a then-partner on his excessive alcohol consumption.

    Thanks again Tara for the timely reminder.

  • Suzy F. says:

    Tara Mohr..we have got to speak life! I didn’t realize we were kindred spirits till recently. I’m an engineer (not even in your field) who had a similar moment of frustration with women colleagues in engineering, sales, etc…who were holding back, playing it safe, being emotionally beaten into submission and getting really frustrated. I tried to do something about it by speaking to one of my ‘male’ leaders to see if we can ignite them and remind them how powerful and knowledgeable they are and that they could do more! Needless to say, he dismissed me and said, by this point in their career, people should be self motivated. I am still reeling about it..and as such will be presenting this my ideas at a Women in Strategy Session in NYC in March. A friend suggested a long time ago that I look into your works…I finally downloaded your book this past weekend and was almost falling off my chair when I read your intro. It was as if you were in my brain all these years since I’ve been out of college (that’s since 1989) and hearing me scream out loud…I CAN DO SO MUCH MORE THAN THIS! I used to come home bored and crying until I left the job to find greener pastures. I can say I’m happy now, but know there is so much more to be done! Life is a roller coaster for me!I plan on reading your book cover to cover…can’t wait!

  • Terri says:

    As a side note, I’m in NYC too! I wish you were speaking at a public event somewhere. Maybe next time!
    Thanks for your book and all you do on the blog.
    Good luck with all your activities here, and enjoy your stay in my hometown!

  • Heather says:

    One of those “ah ha” moments , for me, thanks very much. What a great skill to be able to walk round the conversation and look at its various components and directions. Wish I had it ! Wish all this was taken as understood ,or maybe I’m just late to the realization

  • I read this and tried it with my hubby later that day. I felt more sure of the conversation by asking what HE wanted/needed from it. It was a much better discussion! I will certainly keep the meta-conversation in mind in the future.

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